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All eyes were on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week as he and his colleagues reconvened after an August recess. The 81-year-old Republican addressed a medical episode where he appeared to freeze for a second time in public, this time while giving remarks in Kentucky.
“One particular moment of my time back home has received its fair share of attention in the press over the past week,” McConnell said during Wednesday’s Senate leadership press conference. “But I assure you, August was a busy and productive month for me and my staff back in the Commonwealth.”
The episode sparked added concerns over McConnell’s health after he first froze during a July press conference on Capitol Hill. He had previously suffered a concussion and broken rib from a fall in March.
McConnell’s office said Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the Capitol attending physician, consulted with the senator and his neurology team and cleared him to continue with his schedule.
All this comes on the heels of the return of Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, to the Senate after a months-long absence earlier this year due to shingles. Feinstein’s absence was especially felt on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which at the time was unable to advance any of President Biden’s judicial nominees.
These episodes have renewed broader questions around the health of some of America’s oldest and most powerful elected officials on both sides of the aisle, whose decisions greatly affect the people they represent.
Why there's debate
Biden is the oldest president ever, at 80 years old, but his political rival Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, is not far behind at 77.
This current Congress is also the oldest in history, with a median age of 65 in the Senate and 58 in the House, according to FiveThirtyEight.
While McConnell’s Republican allies, like Sens. Mike Rounds, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, have said they remain confident in his ability to lead, other GOP members have expressed doubt.
This week, freshman Republican congressman John James of Michigan introduced a resolution that would establish an upper age limit for Congress, the vice presidency and the presidency.
"You can't watch a video of Feinstein or McConnell or Biden and tell me that everything's OK," James said in an interview with Fox News Digital. "It's not just us saying it, it’s our adversary seeing it, they see that America has lost a step."
If passed, James's proposed constitutional amendment would prevent candidates from running for those offices "if at any time during the term the person will be 75 years of age or older," according to bill text obtained by Fox News Digital.
If such legislation were to take effect now, 36 members of the House and 16 members of the Senate would be deemed too old to serve. Trump, who has received James’s support, would also be disqualified from running for president again under the proposed age limit.
Other Republicans, like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51, who is seeking the party’s presidential nomination, have called for competency tests for candidates over 75. Her political rival, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, has said it’s time for a new generation to lead.
Meanwhile across the aisle, McConnell’s Democratic defenders have included Biden and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Joe Manchin and John Fetterman, who has struggled with health issues of his own in the past year.
Feinstein’s absence from the Senate similarly prompted calls from within her own party for her to resign before her term ends on Jan. 3, 2025. But others have come to her defense, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chris Murphy, who said those trying to push Feinstein out were attempting to link her medical condition to unfounded accusations about her mental acuity.
McConnell says he’s not stepping down anytime soon. “I am going to finish my term as leader and I’m going to finish my Senate term,” he told reporters Wednesday. His current term will end in January 2027.
And on Friday, the 83-year-old Pelosi announced she will run for reelection in an effort to win back the Democratic majority in the House in 2024.
Feinstein, however, announced in February that she will not seek reelection in 2024 but will continue serving the rest of her current term.
Age and health shouldn’t be conflated
“If McConnell takes a break from the Senate or steps down, it won’t be because of age alone. It’ll be because of health reasons. Just as questions surrounding Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) are not about the 54-year-old’s age but, rather, his capacity to do the job.” — LZ Granderson, Los Angeles Times
Americans want to see themselves represented in government
“I think the biggest reason that younger Americans want younger lawmakers is they feel they’re not well represented by older Americans, both from a standpoint of the things that older representatives might focus on or talk about that are different from what a younger candidate might talk about … It makes them less satisfied with their representative government and less satisfied with their democracy.” — James M. Curry, University of Utah political scientist, to FiveThirtyEight
Age really is just a number
“There are plenty of folks who would like to weaponize age … How old is too old? That's an unanswerable question … Some people make it out into their 80s and beyond very healthy, functioning cognitively at a very high level and there's some people who can't make it past their 50s and do very well.” — S. Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to ABC News
Job performance should be tested
“As people age, they face heightened risk of chronic disease and of having multiple chronic conditions. Chronic health problems can interfere with daily functioning and put older politicians at higher risk of performing poorly on the job — for example, falling. Testing health — or, even better, job performance — is another option. Testing workers of all ages at regular intervals avoids ageist stereotypes. Biden undergoes an annual health screening and has been deemed ‘fit for duty.’ Should Feinstein and McConnell be held to the same standard? That raises the thorny question, what if physicians disagree about a politician’s health and ability to remain in office?” — Nancy S. Jecker, The Conversation
Setting an age limit would be difficult
“The military, commercial pilots and, in some states, judges all follow a mandatory age for retirement. But imposing an age limit for the president or lawmakers serving in Congress would be a much harder lift. Essentially, it would require Congress to add a new amendment to the Constitution. Doing so generally requires the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, as well as three-quarters of the state legislatures. The last time Congress added an amendment was over 30 years ago.” — Juliana Kim, NPR
Seniority isn’t a bad thing
“Under the so-called seniority system, members of Congress are able to gain power simply by remaining in office; their standing within such a hierarchy is dependent solely on the length of their tenure. Seniority is used to determine who gets first choice at offices and, more important, who gets to chair committees. Seniority itself isn't necessarily a negative attribute; over time, members may develop institutional knowledge and close working relationships that allow them to be more effective legislators.” — Bryan Metzger and Brent D. Griffiths, Insider
Implement term limits, not age limits
“Simply implementing term limits for legislators is not a panacea for the ills of poor governance or corruption. Studies of state government show that state legislators are more prone to high spending and corruption when they do not face the prospect of re-election and are thus not constrained by voters or public opinion. But these incentive problems can be mitigated by implementing a consecutive limit rather than a lifetime limit. Allowing for unlimited total terms but limiting consecutive terms that can be served would weigh against members being elected past their ability to serve while also incentivising them to remain responsive to their constituents.” — Christopher Rhodes, Al Jazeera
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